‘The Playboy’: Chester Brown’s Unflinching Autobiography of Sexual Awakening [Sex]
Sexy is an interesting word. When we say something is sexy, we’re implying that it’s nice to look at, that it inspires pleasure. It only implies those positive aspects of sex, the joy and luridness. But when you actually think about sex, there are a lot of uncomfortable feelings and confusing emotional experiences involved. We never consider these parts of sex when we call something sexy. So here’s the sexy comics reality-check. The Playboy, by Chester Brown. The shame, discomfort, loneliness, and excitement of self-discovery in one easy-to-read package. And weirdly, there is something sexy about it.
Initially, Brown’s had been weird, surreal, gonzo comix like Ed the Happy Clown, a stream-of-consciousness bad acid trip through the crustier parts of his unfettered id. Eventually, Brown grew tired of unending, surreal narratives and scatological humor. He needed to do something different.
Inspired by the works of fellow Canadians Seth, Joe Matt, and Julie Doucet, he re-focused his work on autobiography. And like Joe Matt and Doucet, he seemed totally unashamed to delve into his own sexual history. It didn’t take long for him to gain a reputation as a cartoonist willing to push the boundaries of decency and portray the grotesque, as a result, Yummy Fur was highly controversial, often shipped in a plastic bag marked “Adults Only,” at one point dropped by both its printer and distributor.The Playboy collects issues 21 to 23 of Yummy Fur, which recounts Brown’s experiences as a fifteen-year-old boy in mid-1970s suburban Canada, discovering sex, women, masturbation and shame through Playboy magazine. It’s told with remarkable, unflinching candor, leaving nothing to the imagination, never sparing the sticky visuals for bashful eyes. It’s definitely not for everyone: Readers with conservative attitudes towards what should and shouldn’t be portrayed in comics needn’t bother.
Narrated by a miniaturized, demonic version of Brown himself, the story begins with young Chester and family in church. And it’s here, in church, where those first nagging thoughts of Playboy and its mysterious innards begin. Immediately there’s a strong juxtaposition between sex/perversion and family/religion, a powerful but subtle dichotomy that informs each nervous experience.
Right after church, Chester rides his bike to the store where he first spied the magazine, barely overcoming the fear, embarrassment, and shame evoked by such a public admission of sexual urges. It’s a nerve-wracking ordeal, pulling that first issue down from the stands and mustering the nerve to pay the cashier, worsened by running into his parents’ friends from church.
With that first issue of Playboy, Chester enters a new world. It quickly becomes an obsession for him, as he buys every issue he can find, memorizes each sultry detail of the buxom nudes languishing in soft-lit sun rooms, and goes to great lengths to keep his fascination a secret from friends and family. And of course there’s the masturbation. Lots of it. It becomes a ritual — cracking open a new Playboy, masturbating over it (literally) and then hiding it, each moment heightened by the fear of discovery.
Chester’s obsession with Playboy goes on to inform his entire adult life. The constant tension, the push-and-pull between self-pleasure and self-disgust, gnaws away at him through the years. He feels completely isolated in his own sexual journey — an effect heightened by the use of spare, floating panels over a black background — and goes back and forth from acceptance to denial. He destroys issues only to buy them again later, over and over throughout the years. As an adult, he has difficulty relating to women, messy flesh and blood and emotions so much more complicated than the flat, glossy ones. When he does eventually get a girlfriend, during sex he can only maintain an erection by picturing the soft-eyed pinups that linger in his imagination.
The real, raw truth of The Playboy can be shocking, disgusting, and uncomfortable in all manner of ways. Brown openly discusses topics that are supposed to be private, hidden under a facade of self-denial. Eventually, the honesty with which he tells his own story overshadows the uncomfortable bits, and allows him to convey what is essentially a universal story. The particulars are different, obviously, but the roiling emotions of sexual awakening is something everyone in post-adolescence can relate to. In today’s current hyper-sexualized culture, Brown’s story might even come off to new generations as quaint or old-fashioned: a throwback to the days when sexual initiation was a simple matter of buying a magazine. The very idea of going to a store and buying an issue of Playboy seems almost laughable today.
Nonetheless, The Playboy is a classic comic book, and shall remain so for quite a while. Guilt, joy, confusion, loneliness — these are experiences that transcend age and and gender. And in a weird, uncomfortable and simultaneously comforting way, that is sexy.